South Asians take gay struggle to the UN

Asia Times
A movement, headed by South Asians, is taking shape to challenge the United Nations system to protect the human rights of gay minorities around the world.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, proclaims that "all persons are born free and equal in dignity and rights".
Activists are creating pressure points to generate awareness around the issue, building on various UN treaties that protect people's rights. It is the fervent hope of several prominent gay politicians and activists who raised the issue inside the UN this week at an unprecedented meeting that countries will be pulled up in future for persecuting homosexuals.

Leading the explosive battle are South Asians who held the first-ever high-powered seminar at the UN headquarters on Monday, with two openly gay politicians from the US and Canada as panelists. Prominent South Asians in the UN system have contributed to the debate both by organizing and by meticulously documenting cases of people who are routinely persecuted, jailed and even executed by governments because of their sexual orientation.

These efforts have been strengthened by the work of Siddharth Dube, a well known Indian writer who is now with the United Nations Children's Fund. He enlisted the support of other senior UN officials and built on the work done by the likes of Abid Hussein, former Indian ambassador to the US, and Asma Jahangir, a human rights advocate and lawyer from Pakistan. Both Hussein and Jahangir were UN special rapporteurs and reported on human rights violations, including how sexual minorities might be targeted for harassment and denied freedom of expression.

"We want to encourage more discussion and show how widespread the abuses are. The most accepted abuses in a country tend to be those of sexual minorities," says Dube, who has written path-breaking books on poverty and the AIDS crisis in India. Unglobe, the union of the UN's gay and lesbian employees, scored a goal of sorts when it succeeded in getting Secretary General Kofi Annan to attend. Supporting these efforts were Shashi Tharoor, under secretary general for communications, and Nitin Desai, under secretary general for sustainable development. Both Tharoor and Desai are staunch supporters of human rights issues.

Annan made a brief statement in favor of "tolerance", without advocating a course of action. But his mere presence was a signal strong enough to cheer the group. In a statement issued later, Annan said through his spokesman, "The United Nations cannot condone any persecution of, or any discrimination against, people on any grounds." But he also added that there was "a wide range of opinion on the issue among member states, with very strong feelings on both sides of the argument, and he does not believe this is something the United Nations should get involved in".

The message was clear - while the time may have come for the world body to face this volatile issue and wade through the political thicket of taboos, deep-rooted prejudice, cultural squeamishness and insecurities, he can only encourage by example, not by prodding his member countries.

But others in the UN system were more willing to take sides. Statements of support were read out from the heads of several UN agencies, including Mark Malloch Brown, the administrator of the UN Development Program, and Carol Bellamy, executive director of the UN Children's Fund. Dr Peter Piot, head of the Joint UN Program against HIV/AIDS said, "Homophobia continues to have a devastating impact on individuals, communities and societies today. Persecution of sexual minorities is all too common." He asked that the principles enshrined in the UN Charter are upheld for all people. The senior UN leadership is clearly willing to be part of the momentum, but will they continue to speak out when they clash with the crude realities of donor country politics, bloc loyalties and continental divides?

Nearly 70 of the 191 UN member countries have a ban on homosexuality, many with severe penalties. The issue created a storm in April in Geneva at the UN Human Rights Commission when Brazil, with the support of some European countries, proposed a resolution expressing "deep concern at the occurrence of violations of human rights in the world against persons on the grounds of their sexual orientation". Muslim countries were outraged and the resolution was eventually blocked by five countries - Pakistan, Libya, Saudi Arbia, Malaysia and Egypt. India worked to "postpone" the resolution in an obvious effort not to make the hard choice, while the US indicated it would abstain in case of a vote.

Paula Ettelbrick, a lawyer with the Human Rights Watch, said that African countries were "totally opposed" to the resolution, alongside Muslim countries. Asia and Latin America were divided, while many European countries were in favor. Another human rights activist said that persecution of gays is rampant in Africa. Political leaders in Namibia and Zimbabwe often refer to gays and lesbians as "worse than dogs" and "vermin" that should be exterminated. Difficult as it may be to imagine that such language can by publicly used by politicians, hatred of gays is common. Human Rights Watch receives an average of 500 emails and letters from gays for help in securing asylum in the US. "These are the people we hear from, but there are millions of others who can't speak out," Ettelbrick says.

Svend Robinson, an openly gay member of the Canadian parliament who was a panelist this week, said the countries which "gutted the resolution" in Geneva are supported by the Vatican and some Catholic countries. The UN, which fights for the rights of political minorities from East Timor to Western Sahara, must "speak out" on this issue, he exhorted. Barney Frank, a US Congressman, echoed the sentiment. Other panelists included Anthony Appiah, an eminent professor of philosophy at Princeton University and the author of several acclaimed books. They urged the UN to lead rather than follow on this politically sensitive issue.

A resolution on the rights of sexual minorities is likely to surface again next April in Geneva as international developments surrounding gay rights set the tone. US President George W Bush and the Republican right made it clear last week that they oppose gay marriages, but the Episcopal Church this week voted to elect its first openly gay bishop, in New Hampshire. The Vatican also spoke out against same sex marriages, saying that they are deviant and urged Roman Catholic politicians to vote against laws recognizing them. It is against this thorny backdrop that Unglobe is urging that the UN take the lead in clearly recognizing human rights of homosexuals in international treaties.

Precedents already exist, say experts. In 1994, the UN Human Rights Committee ruled in Toonen vs Australia that laws prohibiting sexual contact between consenting adults were a violation of fundamental human rights to privacy as defined in Article 17 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Since that ruling, the committee has been calling for the repeal of sodomy laws. Asma Jahangir, a UN special rapporteur on extra judicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Radhika Coomaraswamy, rapporteur on violence against women, and Abid Hussein, who reported on the freedom of expression, all recorded rights violations against sexual minorities. The UN committee on economic and social rights has raised the issue of sexual orientation while discussing employment, housing and distribution of goods and services. Similarly, the UN committees dealing with the rights of women and the rights of the child have told governments that sexual orientation is a human rights issue. But all this has been done quietly and in small doses. It is a far cry from asking governments to vote "for" the rights and one can only imagine the heat that will be generated when the resolution is offered next year. As Kofi Annan said, feelings are strong on both sides of the divide. Even on the issue of granting benefits to gay partners of UN employees - also a major demand of Unglobe, Annan was less than forthcoming. He said he stands by the UN's long-standing principle that an employee is subject to his country's laws. Partners are not even given passes to enter the UN building and are eons away from getting health insurance, pension and travel benefits. The two "significant others" in the UN family - the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund - already grant those benefits to gay couples, according to Dube.

Fred Eckhard, Annan's spokesman, explained, "Our current policy is to factor in the national laws of the staff member involved, and every nation has different laws on this matter. So we are weighing all of that information now as we contemplate a possible new policy on benefits to staff members who are in something other than a traditional marital relationship."

The fault lines may not yet be clear, but a debate has certainly begun. If the activists retain the momentum, there could be fireworks as various governments join the debate.

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